Category: Tapas

A Quince Summer

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Summer tends to linger well into the fall in Murcia, and this year has been no different.  The Segura River valley where the city is located heats up like a sauna in July and August and does not easily yield to cooler temperatures come September. Weeks after the fall equinox, highs in Murcia remained stubbornly in the 90s. Once again, it has been a veranico del membrillo – a quince summer.

This expression, a version bearing the Murcianized diminutive ico (in other parts of Spain, the saying is  veranillo del membrillo), is the equivalent of an Indian Summer, when unseasonably high temperatures assert themselves in early autumn, just when ripened quinces are beginning to appear in the markets.

Up until several years ago, I admittedly would not have known a quince had I seen one. This curious fruit was certainly not a Florida childhood staple, although it would not have been out of place on my grandmother’s New England table. In my mind, the quince evokes Colonial America and sensible Yankee desserts, preserves and ciders. Its roots, however, extend much further back. In fact, many botanists believe Adam and Eve’s Forbidden Fruit may have actually been a quince.

Even if it was one day a sinful temptation, the quince nonetheless fell out of favor, at least in the US. Its irregular shape and hard and astringent flesh that must be cooked to be eaten made it an outcast in a grab-and-go world.

Yet these are the precise qualities that have contributed to a quince renaissance in recent years. The humble quince has become a lovable poster child for champions of slow food and opponents of perfectly round fruits without character.

In Spain, quince has remained relatively common over the years. Here, it is typically cooked down with sugar to make concentrated blocks of dulce de membrillo, quince paste. Slices of the sweet jelly are the perfect foil to salty and tangy sheep’s milk cheeses like Manchego.

Quince became an important crop in Murcia in the Middle Ages under Arab rule, and centuries later contributed to the growth of the still significant canning industry in the city. Even though quince production has declined here over the last several decades (largely coinciding with the fateful construction boom), the fruit has not lost its power to conjure up hot fall days in the expression, el veranico del membrillo.

Little by little, the seasons are indeed shifting. Murcia’s imposing summer has finally begun to give way, allowing crisper air to seep into the night, which the sun labors to chase away with dwindling strength. Yet if experience proves me right, the heat will return at least one more, prolonging the quince summer.

Summer’s last stand calls for quince paste. Cooking down quinces into concentrated and sweet dulce de membrillo is a means to preserve the taste of warmer days for the inevitable winter to come.

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Dulce de Membrillo – Quince Paste

The basic steps of this recipe are relatively straightforward – peel and core the quinces either before or after cooking; boil until tender; puree the peeled and cored fruit; mix with sugar and cook over low heat until concentrated; then pour into a mold and cool. But, as I learned through trial and error, timing can significantly influence the results.

Most recipes I came across in local Murcian cookbooks had a lot of gaps, presumably to be filled in with experience. For example, El Libro de la Gastronomía de Murcia suggests cooking the pureed fruit and sugar for 15 minutes, which was enough to make a tasty quince sauce (akin to apple sauce) but not enough to make a concentrated paste. I kept cooking and stirring for 30 minutes more and achieved satisfactory, and sliceable, results.

I have since researched different cooking methods and have come across wildly varying simmer times, from 8 minutes to several hours. I am still experimenting to find the version I like best. In any case, far worse things could happen than to end up with a delicious quince sauce.

I encourage you to visit Janet Mendel’s recent blog post on quinces for her complete and easy-to-follow recipe for dulce de membrillo. Mendel uses several techniques I am eager to try, such as adding some of the quince poaching liquid to the fruit puree and lining the mold with plastic wrap for easy removal. Mendel’s post also includes a lovely story about quince paste in Spain and a savory quince recipe with lamb inspired by several Mediterranean dishes.

To determine the amount of sugar you need, measure or weigh the cooked and pureed fruit and add the same quantity of sugar. I used three quinces, which was enough to fill a 5.5 x 4.5 x 1.5 inch aluminum container.

Quince

Sugar

Cut the quinces in half and place them in a pot and cover with water. Bring to the boil, lower the heat and simmer until the flesh is tender and easily pierced with a fork, after about 30-45 minutes. Completely drain and, once the quinces are cool enough to touch, peel and core them.

Puree the fruit, then weigh or measure it and mix it with an equal amount of sugar in a heavy saucepan. Cook over medium low heat until the puree is reduced nearly by half, stirring frequently so it does not stick to the bottom of the pan. Pour into a rectangular mold and cool. Properly concentrated quince paste will keep in the refrigerator for up to several months. Serve thinly sliced with an assertive cheese such sheep’s milk Manchego.

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Almejas a la marinera – Clams marinière

Almejas a la marinera

This classic Spanish tapa of clams simmered in a garlicky broth of white wine, olive oil and tomato brings the Mediterranean to your table. In each bite, you find brine from the sea and vibrant ingredients from the sun-soaked land.

Almejas a la marinera, either with or without tomatoes, are served in coastal regions throughout Spain, including, of course, Murcia. Here, thanks to a long stretch of Mediterranean shore, fish and seafood figure prominently in regional cuisine. Marisquerías – bars and restaurants specializing in seafood – line the streets of Murcia’s beachside towns and are an essential part of urban food culture, too.

On Fridays and Saturdays at midday, the best marisquerías fill up for the aperitivo, a serial feast of fish, prawns, calamari and various bivalves – think mussels, cockles and razor clams – either fried, steamed or seared a la plancha. Simple seasonings include olive oil, salt, pepper and perhaps a squeeze of lemon. Cold lager, the favored beverage, flows in an endless stream from tap to pitcher.

At such gatherings, I always order almejas a la marinera, which are served in a communal dish, placed where everyone at the table or bar can reach. A film of the scene would capture a blur of hands picking up clams and dipping bread into the fragrant broth. In the background, we’d hear lively conversation, the crinkling of those thin paper napkins ubiquitous in Spain and the occasional rattle of empty clam shells hitting the floor.

To me, this convivial way of eating almejas a la marinera is as important as the ingredients. Sharing the dish completes the recipe, merging the flavors and culture of the Mediterranean.

Almejas a la marinera – Valen’s recipe

Manolo’s mother Valen often prepares these clams as an appetizer for family lunches on Sundays. She serves them in a shallow dish, communal of course, and we all gather around the table and reach in. With pieces of bread, we make savory barcos (boats) by scooping up onion, garlic and broth.

Mediterranean clams are small, slightly bigger than a one euro coin or quarter. I recommend using the smallest clams you can find for this recipe.

Clam size

I have come across several slightly different methods for removing grit from the clams before cooking them. Here, I have included Valen’s method, which you will need to start about 30 minutes before cooking the clams.

You can make the sauce in advance and then reheat it and cook the clams at the last minute. This recipe can easily be doubled.

And, of course, be sure to have plenty of good bread on hand for dipping.

1 lb (≈ 500 g) clams, soaked and rinsed (* See first step in recipe)

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 medium tomatoes, grated (* See note)

1 medium onion, finely diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 teaspoon all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons water

½ cup white wine

Salt and fresh-ground pepper

1 tablespoon chopped parsley

To remove grit, place clams to soak in a bowl with salted cold water about 30 minutes before cooking. Change the water three times, lifting clams out with a slotted spoon to prevent them from taking in any of the sand they have just expelled. Give clams a final rinse before adding them to the sauce.

Heat olive oil in a skillet large enough to hold the clams in a single layer over medium heat. Add tomato and cook, stirring occasionally, until it begins to reduce, about 5 minutes. Add onion, garlic and ¼ tsp of salt and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened and the tomato has lost most of its liquid, another 5-7 minutes. Stir in the flour and cook for another minute. Add water and white wine and simmer, stirring frequently, until the sauce has thickened (it will become more broth-like once the clams are added). Taste for seasonings, keeping in mind that the clams will add saltiness and depth of flavor. Add clams and cover, cooking over medium heat until they open, about 3 to 5 minutes. Discard any that remain closed. Stir in the parsley, then pour into a shallow serving dish. Serve immediately.

YIELD: Serves 3-4 as a tapa and 2 as an appetizer

NOTE: Grating is a quick and easy way to peel tomatoes, and is a favorite method of many Spanish cooks. Cut the tomato in half and gently grate over a bowl, flesh side-down, using the large holes of the grater. The tougher outer skin will not pass through the holes.

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